Fitness First, the UK health and fitness club operator seeking admission to the press and broadcasters fall for it every year, swept away by the shifting hysteria in the frenetic conference atmosphere. First they predict divisive trouble on the conference floor, (as if!) and then they celebrate each "surprise" triumphal platform speech - Rifkind, Portillo and Clarke all got the treatment. Didn't they do well?
But you only need to know one thing: underneath all that, the Conservative Party has gone mad. You can see it in their eyes, all the symptoms of the deadly political plague called schism. I have seen it all before, been there before, done it myself, first in the old Labour Party, then in the SDP. For once schism takes hold of a party, it gallops through them like a flesh-eating bacterium. Can they save themselves now? Of course they could, but from the depth of their passion, I think not.
It is like watching lemmings running for the Bournemouth high cliff. They know where they are going and what they are doing but they can't stop themselves because it's all the other side's fault, never theirs. It's the other lot that started it. Who is to blame? They can all quote chapter and verse on who briefed or leaked first. In myriad overlapping fringe meetings on Europe, halls are packed to overflowing. Police had to be called to Bill Cash's to close the doors. Whatever happens in the well behaved "unity" conference hall, everywhere else the fever of schism is rife, a Gadarene stampede towards Euro-phobia. No, not all of them are mad. But the sensible representatives are mainly very old and not all the old are sensible. Of course they all want to win, if only the other side would shut up. The aged heavily outnumber the rest, giving an impression of a pensioners' conference, but the sensible have lost any sway over the wild young bloods. The party is like one of those dysfunctional families they so love to castigate, like a bunch of grandparents dumped with badly behaved grandchildren who lack the discipline, self-control, respect or tolerance of their own young day. I walked around the tables in the conference coffee lounge and talked to any representatives willing to speak to the press. Some hate the media too much to talk - a sure sign among political activists that all is not well. "You're not one of those traitors from the Telegraph?" hissed one. Among a group in their early 30s was Mark Hughes, prospective candidate for Redditch, Mid Worcestershire, taking over from junior minister Eric Forth, who has fled a 4,000 majority on a chicken run to safer Bromley. So how does Hughes think they can win now? "Europe is the key to our fifth victory," he says instantly. I didn't raise the dread subject; he did. "Europe is what will win for us." It will not be the economic boom, law and order, health, education or taxation, none of these bread-and-butter issues of everyday life. No, it is Europe, he says. "Goldsmith's pounds 20m campaign will make it the key election issue," he gloats, with relish for the fight. "When we lose the election we shall become a Euro-sceptic party within weeks. Our MPs in the next parliament will be far more Euro-sceptic. Why wait until we lose? Let's do it now and win!" The others, an agent from Runnymede and two women representatives from Cambridge, all agreed. At a nearby table were some sensibles. Katherine Banks of SW Devon, an older pragmatist of Majorite persuasion, sighs about the Euro-row but gamely believes, "they will all come to their senses. It is a very good thing to have a debate." Her companion, Mike Halsall, a businessman from Southport, says: "I wish they'd shut up, both sides." His order books are bursting, he's taking on more workers and they should win the election in this economic climate. "But", he adds, "splits make for unpopularity." Two couples in their sixties, who did not wish to be identified, raised Europe before I even sat down. …